Friday 17 May 2019

Switch on the Train

In the run up to its launch Nintendo, understandably were keen to emphasise the portability of the Switch. Not just a home console, promotional videos always showed parties of people enjoying playing on planes, buses and even on rooftops. Recent surveys show an even split between players enjoying the Switch docked and in portable mode. However these people must be enjoying holding their console in the comfort of their own home as I’ve yet to see the console in public.

I travel a lot for work; each day involves 3 hours on public transport. I take trains, busses and I'm no stranger to the London Underground. However I seem to be the only one who uses a Switch on a journey. Others are playing games of course; they’re just not playing good games! ‘Candy Crush’ variants still seem to be the commuter game of choice which means my Switch, sat proudly on a stand in front of me, continues to raise eyebrows. For the most part the majority pretend to have not noticed; we’re terribly polite and British don’t you know. They hold their phones and open their books even if their eye-line suggests they’re mesmerised by what I’m doing. 

Occasionally however it seems inquiry about this wondrous piece of technology is irresistible. 

Futurlab have recently ported their fantastic game ‘Velocity 2X’ to the Switch. Anyone who has played it will know that success depends on repetition. To get a perfect score on a level you have to navigate it flawlessly, at speed while rescuing all hostages and killing all foes. A single mistake can cost you your glory, so to be victorious you must know what you’ll face before you see it. It takes time to memorise the stages, so a dedicated player will find hours can pass by trying and retrying the same thing, over and over again. While this may get repetitive for a player it must be even more monotonous for anyone watching. With headphones on and a single focus on success, I was ignorant of an elderly woman sitting next to me transfixed on my astro efforts. As we reached our destination, I felt a tap on my arm as I shut down the system. “You’d do so much better with your little space ship if you just slowed down a bit” she declared with an irritated tone. I was tempted to explain that the game emphasises speed, the clue is in the name after all. However, I fear each failure I’d endured may well have been accompanied by an exasperated sigh so I wouldn’t have been the best train company. 

Others have been more impressed with my game playing abilities however. One game above all others gains a positive reaction; everyone it seems recognises ‘Mario Kart’. “I used to play that as a kid” one woman said. I initially took it as a back handed compliment, interpreting it as her really saying “aren’t you too old to be playing a Children’s game”. However after acknowledges her with a smile and a nod, it turns out she had been more engaged with the series than I had anticipated. “Is Yoshi still in it?” She enquired. “I used to hate the last track on the rainbow - I kept falling off”. I bashfully pointed out that both Yoshi and Rainbow Road still exist and now there are even variations on both. She turned back to her phone and I dismissed her enquiry as just a polite acknowledgement of an unusual scene, but a few stops later she stopped my game again. “I hate to interrupt you but am I buying the right thing?” She showed me an Amazon order for a Switch ‘Mario Kart Deluxe’ bundle. “My son has not been well, I bet he would love it!” I’d earned Nintendo another sale and she was overjoyed to hear that the console included everything she’d need to play with him. 

‘Mario Odyssey’ unfairly landed a small child in trouble. “look Daddy, Mario is a dinosaur’ the little lad exclaimed pointing in my direction. “Shhh” the Dad replied, “you’ll put him off his game”. He did but it was a sweet reaction so it was hard to be too angry. 

The nudity and gore of ‘LA Noire’ felt surprisingly inappropriate to exhibit in public, but despite its age the graphics of the game certainly impressed. “Wow are you actually playing that film” a woman remarked, seeming surprised that Video Games had evolved since 16bit pixels. Similarly ‘Breath of the Wild’ entrances a train based audience. “Your ‘Lord of the Rings’ game looked fun’ a fellow commuter commented while we waited to disembark. I didn’t correct her, and I wonder if she told anyone that day that Legolas had been slaying a big pig monster. 

We seem to exist in a culture that, perhaps thankfully, promotes privacy. It simply “isn’t British” to engage with strangers, even if it would be to the benefit of others. In the past I made a great friend after our 3DS’ Street Pass highlighted how frequently we shared a train and our similar taste in games. We subsequently had much more enjoyable journeys playing two player games. It seems many discreetly play on Mobile Phone games but aren’t willing to explicitly declare their penchant for gaming by whipping out their Switch in public. I’d certainly argue that the games they could be playing on a dedicated games machine are better, but they can’t possibly enjoy them until they admit that Video Games aren’t limited to a young audience. 

So despite what Nintendo seem to declare in their advertising, commutes to work aren’t shared gaming experiences between strangers. Unless public opinion vastly changes quickly, I doubt I’ll ever be in a situation where someone will see I’m playing on a Switch and then pull out their own JoyCons to challenge me. It’s probably for the best. I’m not actually that good at ‘Mario Kart’ and no one wants to be shown up on their own machine! 

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